Reading the pandemic: How fiction informs 2020

I don’t pretend that I’m capable of following all the chaotic plot twists that we’ve lived through during the last 46,000 months of the Trump administration.  I’m not nearly that wise.  BUT I am a reader and that gives me at least one advantage—while many people are tempted to join in the melee in the center of the room, I can sometimes retreat to my little corner and happily hypnotize myself with my new shiny question that is called

WHICH DYSTOPIAN NOVEL DO WE MOST RESEMBLE RIGHT NOW?!?!

Yes indeed.  I have a nice little diversion going on due to the fact that fiction does double duty as a massive crystal ball.  And over the centuries various pieces of writing have somehow predicted almost every single nuanced bit of anarchy that 2020 has thrown at us. 

Plague, authoritarianism, inequality, unrest, fundamentalism, technology run amok—it has been written.

Let’s take a dive and look at a few examples. 

The literature of plague:

Regarding COVID-19, the one piece of literature that keeps popping in my head is Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, written almost 200 years ago in 1842.  This is partly because it’s awesome.  Everything Poe is awesome, of course, but the brevity and punch of this story is out of the park.  Also, I read it when I was young and it’s pretty much foundational for me.  Lastly, it’s so freakishly spot-on, it is almost impossible not to make connections to 2020 America.

Poe—who is considered the father of the short story genre—begins the story with a simple statement: “The red death had long devastated the country.”  In response, the country’s prince, Prospero, took his entourage to retreat to an elegant abbey where they idly entertained themselves while the rest of the world battled a particularly bloody disease: 

“The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime, it was folly to grieve or to think.”  (emphasis mine)

But it’s boring to stay in a castle, right? So Prospero ordered a masquerade party that flew in the face of decency: 

“The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for color and effects. He disregarded the “decora” of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric luster. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not.”

The party featured seven rooms, with the seventh adorned in black and red with a sepulchral clock whose chime created “disconcert and tremulousness and meditation.” At the end of the night, on the stroke of midnight of course, the party goers realized that an anonymous guest had appeared.  The figure was dressed as the personification of the Red Death itself and this outrage finally broke through the layers of arrogance and callousness.  The revelers attempted to unmask him, only to find nothing at all.  Then they fell ill until

Death held illimitable dominion over all.

I’m not the first reader who has connected Poe’s words to what we are witnessing right now.  Since March, many have written about the similarities to Trump’s handling of COVID-19.  What is somewhat surprising, however, is that the story’s prescience continues to grow stronger and stronger.  Just a few days ago, in the wake of the disastrous party for Trump’s latest supreme court nominee, David L. Ulin of the LA Times noted that “it’s almost too on the nose.” He went on to write this commentary:

“…It was folly to grieve or think.” Could any sentence better express the way the Trump administration has faced — or failed to face — the crisis of COVID-19?  …. And yet, as “The Masque of the Red Death” reminds us, the real folly is exactly the opposite. The plague is not a hoax and no one is immune, even in the Rose Garden.”

Plague literature is timeless because–while diseases come and go—death is the one certainty that everyone eventually must face.  A plague also practically begs for allegory, opening up all sorts of opportunities. 

 Thus, we have not only Poe’s work but also Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Albert Camus’s The Plague and many more.  And even a brief refresher of them shows that each has something to say about what we’re going through.

Love in the Time of Cholera is the plague book that I’ve read most recently.  It is an atmospheric, dreamy, wandering story about a life-long love triangle, filled with scenes of a lush Latin America in the past.  The Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is best known for his use of magical realism but this particular book contains very little, which I find interesting because the book somehow still carries a strong flavor of magical realism. 

The setting is a Caribbean city facing a cholera outbreak.  While one of the protagonists is intent on defeating the disease, on the surface illness does not play nearly as central a role as it does in Poe’s piece and yet the title keeps drawing attention to it as an underlying current.  A popular reading is that there is a commonality between love and disease.  “They each can infect the body, mind, and spirit, they are contagious, and ultimately they can consume people.”  (see www.paperdue.com/essay/love-time-cholera-gabriel-garcia-marquez-82709)

I think the book’s appeal for me is that it focuses on the exquisite ephemeral moments of everyday life, which is what I strive to do in my writing.  As critic Michiko Kakutani wrote in a New York Times review, “Instead of using myths and dreams to illuminate the imaginative life of a people as he’s done so often in the past, Mr. Garcia Marquez has revealed how the extraordinary is contained in the ordinary … The result is a rich, commodious novel, a novel whose narrative power is matched only by its generosity of vision.”

I would add that the book is one more reminder that life and love continue to happen even in the midst of plague.  

~~~

Boccaccio’s Decameron was written almost seven centuries earlier in 1353.  I especially like this one because it is a wonderful example of a frame tale, in the same league as 1001 Nights or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  (As loyal readers will remember, Frame Tales are my jam.) The work contains 100 stories told by a group of young men and women who have fled Florence’s Bubonic plague to hide away at a villa in the Italian countryside. 

The piece has many similarities to Poe’s story but the strongest one is that diversion from the plague serves as the source material and also provides reflection on societal issues. 

A common theme is the fickleness of Fate as illustrated by Lady Fortune or the Wheel of Fortune, echoing Dante’s Inferno.  But, as the introduction to the Florio translation explains, “the Decameron uses Dante’s model not to educate the reader but to satirize this method of learning. The Roman Catholic Church, priests and religious belief become the satirical source of comedy throughout. This was part of a wider historical trend in the aftermath of the Black Death which saw widespread discontent with the church.” 

(cough, cough, Jerry Falwell).  

Who knew that hypocrisy could lead to biting satire?  Hmmm.

I have to admit I have not read the whole Decameron.  I did look into taking Italian for Beginners in college so that I could do so, but fortunately wiser heads prevailed.  Still, I dig some of the quotes from it: 

And the plague gathered strength as it was transmitted from the sick to the healthy through normal intercourse, just as fire catches on to any dry or greasy object placed too close to it.

The deceiver is at the mercy of the one he deceives.

The foolish throng gazed upon it in reverent admiration, and they crowded around him and gave him larger offerings than they ever had before. 

But despite its cynicism, The Decameron has perhaps the most insightful and humane line you could ever hope to read, a line that would serve us very well today: 

To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others.” 

~~~

But wait, there’s more!  We haven’t even taken a look at fiction that crosses boundaries, blending plague fiction with fantasy and science fiction and dystopian fiction.  What about the zombies?  Isn’t there a handmaid somewhere?  Or was it a handbasket?  Keep watching this space for Part Two of Reading the Pandemic.

See you soon!

About Elizabeth Jennings

I am an author living in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My first book, The Button Collector, was released May 6, 2013, by PageSpring Publishing.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Reading the pandemic: How fiction informs 2020

  1. Ted Hoffman says:

    This is a charming overview of a fascinating, and damning, subject. I did not realize, Elizabeth, that you are as enamored of Poe as I am. I all but worship the man. He and Twain occupy the highest pantheon of my literary Olympus. “Masque” is a brilliant, extraordinarily visual story that climaxes in such brutal poetry. I have a friend, a teacher of English in Japan, who has been using that story as, indeed, a metaphor for Herr Trump and the pandemic. And for anyone reading my modest response, I urge you to chase down a copy of “The Button Collector,” Elizabeth’s rich and dear book of linked stories. Trump may be good for little, but what a source for metaphor and dystopian allusion. It was fun and enlightening to read your blog on this, Elizabeth. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s